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Name: In re Vaquera (2024) 15 Cal.5th 706
Case #: S258376
Court: CA Supreme Court
Opinion Date: 02/05/2024

Defendant’s 25-year-to-life sentence under the One Strike law violates due process because the information did not provide him fair notice of the prosecution’s election to seek that sentence. The prosecution charged Vaquera with two counts of committing a lewd act on a child under the age of 14 and a jury convicted him of both counts. In connection with one of these counts (count 2), the prosecution alleged a multiple victim circumstance under the One Strike law, which provides for a 15-year-to-life sentence, and the jury found the circumstance true. Although the One Strike law allegation as to count 2 did not specify that the prosecution was seeking a 25-year-to-life sentence based on the fact that the victim was under 14 years old, the trial court imposed a 25-year-to-life sentence after the prosecution requested this sentence in its sentencing brief. Vaquera ultimately filed a habeas petition in the Court of Appeal, arguing that his sentence on count 2 violated his due process rights because the information did not provide fair notice of the specific One Strike sentence he faced. The court denied the petition and the California Supreme Court granted review to resolve a split of authority on this issue. Held: Reversed. “To satisfy due process, it is sufficient for an accusatory pleading to provide the defendant fair notice of the particular One Strike sentence the prosecution is seeking and of which facts it intends to prove to support that sentence.” The court analyzed the language of the One Strike allegation for count 2 and concluded it failed to provide Vaquera with fair notice that the prosecution intended to invoke a 25-year-to-life sentence under Penal Code section 667.61(j)(2) for that count. The information did not specify that the prosecution was seeking 25 years to life on that count, cite subdivision (j)(2), or otherwise make clear that the prosecution was seeking a longer sentence based on the victim’s age. The ambiguous reference to count 2 in the allegation did not provide fair notice of the prosecution’s election to rely on the allegation of the victim’s age to seek a longer One Strike sentence. [Editor’s Note: (1) During its analysis of this issue, the court explained that “a prosecutor has the discretion to charge any provision of the One Strike law supported by the facts or, indeed, to elect not to invoke the One Strike law at all; nothing requires the prosecutor to charge the One Strike provision that carries the longest sentence.” The court disapproved People v. Zaldana (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 527, review granted 3/18/2020 (S259731), to the extent it is inconsistent with the court’s conclusion that the prosecution has discretion to allege a subdivision (b) circumstance rather than a subdivision (j)(2) circumstance where the defendant is charged with committing One-Strike-eligible offenses against multiple victims under the age of 14. (2) The court noted that the Legislature may wish to amend section 667.61(o) to state that the express pleading requirement applies to the circumstances specified in subdivisions (j), (l), and (m) as well as those specified in (d) and (e). (3) The court also provided examples of how an accusatory pleading could give adequate notice of a One Strike allegation.]

Defendant is entitled to be resentenced to 15 years to life on count 2. The court stated it need not decide whether the analysis in People v. Mancebo (2002) 27 Cal.4th 735 (“doctrines of waiver and estoppel, rather than harmless error, apply” where the prosecution’s failure to plead a One Strike allegation reflects a “discretionary charging decision”) applies in this case because, even assuming the due process violation is subject to a prejudice analysis, Vaquera is entitled to be resentenced to 15 years to life on count 2. After discussing the harmless error analysis outlined in People v. Anderson (2020) 9 Cal.5th 946, the court concluded that “[n]othing in the record here suggests Vaquera learned of his sentencing exposure on count 2 in time for him to take it into account in fashioning his defense strategy.” There was also nothing in the record to show that Vaquera had actual notice that he faced a 25-year-to-life sentence on count 2. Based on this record, the Attorney General did not meet his burden to show the fair notice violation was harmless. The court disagreed with the Attorney General’s argument that Vaquera had actual notice because the One Strike law required the court to impose a 25-year-to-life sentence. This argument rested on the erroneous premise that a 15-year-to-life sentence under section 667.61(b) would be unauthorized in the context of this case. However, “subdivision (j)(2) requires the court to impose a 25-year-to-life sentence only when it has been properly pled and proved.”